Reward Systems – Do they really work?

Jun 04, 2020 | Posted by the IEW Blog Team


Have you ever wondered how to motivate your students without resorting to bribery? Occasionally our exceptional customer service team receives a question that only Andrew Pudewa himself can answer. This blog post represents such a question—and includes the answer from the man himself.

First, a bit of background from an IEW mom (paraphrased a bit to preserve anonymity):

Our basic lessons (reading, writing, math, and sometimes history) have fallen in the "contrived" form of relevancy for over a year with our oldest son, who just turned eight years old. We came up with a rewards system last year to help promote good attitudes and good hard work for him. In return for good behavior, he earns twenty minutes of computer or video game time after lessons are finished. We initially started this system one year ago when he was having behavioral difficulties, and he has come VERY far since then. He is far more respectful in terms of his behavior—a 180° change.

However, he has come to associate learning in these areas with the reward. He told us this week, "I'm only going to do good and hard work if the option for video game time is on the table. If it's not, I'm not doing it!" 

Our son's comment has caused my husband and me to question whether our form of reward is still appropriate for him.

We want our son to be motivated to learn and to enjoy learning. However, we are worried that computer/video game reward time has become his only reason for completing lessons and are concerned for what this may mean for him as he continues to develop and grow.

Second, here’s the question:

Is it all right for a child to be in a contrived form of relevancy for an extended period of time? At some point should we move away from having a reward or economic system if he seems reliant on these rewards?

And, finally, Mr. Pudewa answers:


I’ve been thinking a lot about your question and want to warn you in advance that my advice may be challenging to you (or flat out inappropriate), but this is the best thinking I have at this point.

First of all, I congratulate you on getting past the yelling and tearing up work stage. That sounds like it was pretty rough. However, I completely understand the dilemma of “video game extortion.”

I find it interesting that he would use the expression “on the table,” given his age. That would indicate to me he’s a pretty savvy guy, very auditorily tuned in, and probably has a great vocabulary. I expect that you read out loud to him a lot.

The question facing you is likely not “Is contrived relevancy appropriate?” but “What economic system might point him toward a higher good?”

One of the great problems with video games is their addictive nature. I certainly have experienced this myself (as a much younger man) and see it widespread in kids (and adults). Many respected researchers have presented extensive commentary on this, so it is not something I will try to argue here; I expect you can accept the premise. If you want support for the claim, I’m sure you can do your own research.

While we know that “moderation in all things” is generally the wisest position to hold, I would point out that an eight-year-old child is very young, and appetites are very quickly developed at that age. It seems that your son has acquired an aggressive appetite for this sort of amusement, and you realize that is not a good thing. As he gets older, his strength of will will increase, and your challenges in moderating this appetite will become harder and harder. Therefore, I am going to suggest this:

Take a break from both “school” and video games. Just say no. You have the power to do this now; you will not when he is twelve. He needs a clean break from screen-based entertainment, and a restoration to more (dare I say) “organic” recreations: outdoors, Legos, board games, books, music, art, animals, gardens … anything like that that you can bring into your environment given your circumstances.

In place of the schoolwork that he resists, find other work he can do without frustration—even if it doesn’t look like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Instead of pencil and paper math, get some “learning wrap-ups,” and play some games that use math, such as Yahtzee and Monopoly. Instead of writing on paper, do some writing together with him on a whiteboard. If he balks at reading, shift away for a while, and let him listen to audiobooks while he engages in other forms of play. He’s young enough that “academics” are not so important. The more you can do things together, the better, but it’s also okay for him to be bored and figure out ways to entertain himself.

You didn’t mention if he has siblings; I’m guessing that he is either the only child or he is the oldest by a few years, so the only one of school age that you’re trying to homeschool. If you have younger children, it is even more important to make some changes, in that you don’t want his example to subconsciously affect the others.

This is going to have to be cold turkey. You must not argue or even explain beyond “This is a decision we have made for the good of our family.” And most importantly, Dad has to be on board, even being willing to give up video games himself if necessary. Get any physical games or equipment out of the house. The first week or so will be very tough, which is why you’ll have to try and bring in other activities that can be enjoyed together. But he’s young and therefore will adjust more easily than an older child. I think he can get past it and ultimately accept the new video-game-free lifestyle because it will be more wholesome and therefore good and true. But you won’t persuade him of that; you just have to do it.

As an old grandpa with grown-up children, I will admit that parenting was easier thirty years ago. Technology, while it has many benefits, has made home life much harder. Fortunately, we were able to highly regulate movies (one a week max, IF everyone earned it!), no video games at all, and as computers and the Internet invaded our home, we managed to control that well for the older kids. With our two youngest (b. 1997 and 2000), it was significantly harder, and if we could go back ten years and know what we know now, my wife and I would have set up even stricter policies. So I don’t envy you your task. It is very, very hard to “tame the techno-beast” as Todd Wilson puts it. All kids these days (in fact most adults as well) believe that they have a “right” to entertainment. It’s a difficult belief to undo, and I’m not sure it’s even possible to completely eradicate the thinking, short of doing something like going away to live in a village in Indonesia to work in the mission field …

When you do get back to “academics,” look to the Three Laws of Motivation: 1) Children like to do what they can do. 2) Children want to do what they think they can do. 3) Children hate (and will refuse) to do that which they believe they cannot do. Start again, but go back to the schoolwork that he can do with relative ease. Praise him for his efforts, and try to apply the “EZ+1” principle: A task should consist of what can be done “easily” (meaning without much help and not too goofy) plus one new challenge.

In this country we have really gone astray in stressing formal academics for young children, often before they are neurologically ready, and consequently have created a dislike or even hatred of learning. Eight is still young—especially for a boy—and you have plenty of time. Free yourself from any current anxiety about schoolwork, grade level, etc., and get back to the core things: good/bad, right/wrong, how to work, and how to play.

As far as contrived motivation, I think some kind of economic system that uses points or tokens to affirm achievement, cooperation, accomplishment, attitude, work, etc. is perfectly valid. Then, you can set up options for him to use his points “to buy”: trips, special treats, things he wants (other than video games), privileges which are wholesome and feed the soul, etc. And he can lose those points or tokens for violating policies that you have established and clearly communicated. This will allow you to continue to teach him (without being constantly negative) what is appropriate, beneficial behavior and what is not. Generally the more specific the system and the more consistently you can apply it, the better the results. If you want to discuss some options in more detail, let me know, and we can talk on the phone. But I’m guessing you get the idea. This type of thing mirrors our real economy, where we get paid for working well and can get fined for violating the laws.

I apologize if my prescription is either too harsh or inappropriate. I don’t know your family, so I’m somewhat forced to make some suppositions. Please forgive me if in any way I have crossed a line, offended you, or misread the situation.

Blessings to you and yours as you continue your most important work!


Hopefully you’ve gleaned some useful suggestions for motivating your own children. And stay tuned to The Arts of Language Podcast. Andrew and Julie explore the topic of motivation in Episodes 221 and 222. Be sure to check them out. If you don’t want to miss an episode, you can sign up for reminders here.

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